I was sitting at a table by myself, having lunch and reading the latest Nadia Bolz-Weber book. Three women seated at the next table were talking about a one of their mutual acquaintances. I couldn’t avoid overhearing the conversation– they were rather animated.
Apparently, their acquaintance was having some difficulty. The three of them analyzed her problems, her motivations and her choices. It was clear to them why their friend did what she’d done, what motivated her choices, and how she needed to change.
You know that conversation, right? We all participate in it. We analyze other people. We analyze ourselves. But it’s never as black-and-white and simple as we wish.
Life is complicated and confusing. People are complicated and confusing. I’m complicated and confusing, especially to myself.
Why does any of us do what we do? What’s driving our decisions? What does any of it mean?
Much of the time, I’m not really sure. My different emotions and intentions are often rolled together like one of those balls of rubber bands. So many different and distinct strands wrapped so tightly that you have a difficult time separating them.
Sometimes, your head feels like a snow globe. The little white flakes are swirling around so fast that you can’t make anything out. Snow globes are beautiful if you’re looking at them from the outside; if you’re inside the swirling chaos, it’s a whiteout.
Even in our best moments, we’re always a mix of things. Am I really trying to help this other person get what they need in the way they need it? Or is this more about me? Am I helping them or manipulating them? Is it selfishness or selflessness driving my decisions? Love or fear?
Usually, it’s a little of both. With many other things tossed in, too.
And what is the other person feeling? What do they really need? If they’re like me, they’re probably not all that sure, either.
Trying to make sense of it can be maddening and exhausting. The chaos in our heads can wear us out. We just want the swirling flakes to settle down for a while so we can see what they’re hiding.
Some people try not to think about all the confusion and complexity. They try to avoid it by taking a black-and-white approach. Do a few things a certain way and don’t worry about anything or anybody else. Above all, don’t question anything. Treat life and people as though they’re simple math problems that can be added up and explained in neat philosophical or psychological or theological columns.
In my experience, things rarely add up. And they’re never, ever neat.
Us and life: They’re complicated.
I remember watching a documentary about Apollo 13, the moon mission that went awry because one small thing on the spaceship malfunctioned and threw everything into a tizzy. Instead of landing on the moon, the goal became just to get back home alive.
The astronauts talked about how complicated the spaceships were. They had to be that way in order to do what was necessary to transport them to another world. And things always went surprisingly wrong, even on the most successful missions. For instance, Neil Armstrong had to repeatedly override a warning system as he landed the lunar module, moving ahead despite a malfunction.
In a sense, we’re all like that, aren’t we? So complicated and prone to malfunctions. Something is always going wrong. A warning bell is always sounding in our heads. And we’re just trying to make a safe landing while our hearts are racing.
So, what does it mean?
Maybe the lesson is to appreciate our amazing and beautiful and confounding complexity. And to remember to be kind and gentle and patient with others who, like us, are just trying to make sense of things and figure them out a little bit. Just like us, they might be in one of those snow globe whiteouts.
Also, to be even more kind and gentle and patient with ourselves, which is often harder to do. Instead of getting frustrated with our daily confusion and divine complexity, to learn to appreciate and value it and even love it. Because after all, Love itself is complicated and confounding.
And to remember that a ball of rubber bands can roll a long way down the road. A snow globe can be incredibly beautiful when everything is frantically swirling. And a space ship can visit other worlds, even if a warning bell keeps sounding because something else has gone wrong.
If we weren’t so complicated, we couldn’t do all the amazing and beautiful things that we do. In that sense, complexity is a great gift. So is confusion.
And as it turns out, some of our best and most beautiful moments happen when we have no idea what we’re doing.